June 19, 2018 / 2:39 AM / 2 months ago

Australian shares firm, led by health care and energy stocks; NZ down

* Healthcare and energy stocks produce solid gains

* Macquarie Group hits record after Morgan Stanley upgrades rating

* NZ falls as a2 Milk, Scales Corp slip

By Aditya Soni

June 19 (Reuters) - Australian shares rose on Tuesday as health care and energy stocks were boosted by a weaker local currency and an overnight jump in oil prices, while a rally in Macquarie Group boosted financials.

The S&P/ASX 200 index firmed 0.3 percent or 18.50 points to 6,122.60 by 0230 GMT. The benchmark ticked up 0.2 percent on Monday.

Health care stocks rose 2.3 percent to a record high and accounted for most of the gains on Tuesday.

Mathan Somasundaram, market portfolio strategist with Blue Ocean Equities said health care stocks were benefiting from a weaker local currency as they were global players.

The Australian and New Zealand dollars softened to multi-month lows on Monday.

“Financials are underperforming, resources have done well but they are not cheap, so I suppose the more defensive- orientated growth is healthcare and the market has basically parked all the money there,” Somasundaram added.

Pharmaceutical firm CSL Ltd jumped 3.3 percent to a record high, while bionic ear maker Cochlear Ltd firmed 1.3 percent.

Energy stocks accumulated gains from an overnight rise in crude oil prices.

Oil prices rose on Monday in volatile trade as market participants lowered their expectations for how much OPEC might increase production and investors assessed the impact of a trade dispute between the United States and China.

Woodside Petroleum Ltd strengthened 1.4 percent to a four-week high, while Oil Search Ltd firmed 1.9 percent to its highest since May 22.

Meanwhile, Macquarie Group Ltd rose 3.3 percent to its highest level ever after Morgan Stanley upgraded the investment bank’s stock rating to “overweight” from “equal-weight” and raised its target price.

The wider financial sector also gained, rising 0.5 percent to a near three-week high.

Somasundaram said global investors were buying banking stocks as they have been in a downtrend for a while and a lower Australian dollar made them cheaper.

Top lender Commonwealth Bank of Australia rose 0.5 percent to near two-week high, while Insurance Australia Group Ltd (IAG) firmed 2.8 percent to a record high.

IAG said on Tuesday it will sell its Thai and Indonesian operations to Japanese insurer Tokio Marine Holdings 8766.T for A$525 million ($390 million).

Elsewhere, Mineral Resources fell as much as 5.4 percent to a near nine-month low after junior miner Atlas Iron said it would give the mining services group three business days to match a buyout offer from Hancock Prospecting.

In New Zealand, the benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index fell 0.4 percent or 34.73 points to 8,940.87.

Food businesses accounted for most of the losses with a2 Milk Company Ltd dipping 1.5 percent and agribusiness operator Scales Corporation Ltd dropped 1.1 percent. (Reporting by Aditya Soni in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Nikhil Kurian Nainan)

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